Skip to content

Is "Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater," True? Relationship Experts Weigh In

Deciding whether to stay in a relationship after infidelity is complicated.

We've all heard the phrase: Once a cheater, always a cheater. Often, it's used to deter someone from entering a new relationship ("if they cheated on their last partner, they'd also cheat on you.") It can also be used to encourage someone to leave their current partnership ("if they cheated on you once, they'd cheat again.") However, just because the phrase is well-circulated doesn't mean it's accurate. To discover if this common saying is true or a myth, we consulted relationship experts. Ahead, they weigh in on the phrase "once a cheater, always a cheater."

READ THIS NEXT: 6 Red Flags That Spell Cheating, Therapists Warn.

Most relationship experts disagree with this phrase.

A young couple holding hands shares the couch with their therapist who's talking to them.
VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

The relationship experts we polled unanimously agreed that the phrase "once a cheater, always a cheater" is false. "Considering upwards of 50 percent of people cheat at some point in their lives, not everyone is doing it all the time," says Karyn Wittmeyer, licensed mental health counselor at Branching Out Wellbeing. Point taken!

So, what drives cheating? "Some people will always cheat because they don't think the rules apply to them, and they won't take accountability for their actions," Wittmeyer says.

However, Wittmeyer adds that most dalliances fall into a category that relationship expert Esther Perel calls "non-pathological" affairs. "These are affairs that either lead the person to learn something about themselves to regain a sense of freedom, give someone a way to exit a toxic relationship, or preserve a relationship where a need isn't getting met," Wittmeyer explains. These situations often wouldn't occur under different circumstances in a different relationship.

Even in pathological cases, experts agree people can change. "I believe that anyone can change if they are willing to do so," says ​Joanne Malseed, licensed mental health counselor at Whole Life Balance. "I have watched many clients put in the work to heal from trauma and learn to express their needs and feel secure in their relationships in order to avoid looking elsewhere." It takes work, but it is possible.

READ THIS NEXT: 7 Body Language Signs That Mean Your Partner Is Cheating, According to Therapists.

"Once a cheater, always a cheater" is a protective belief.

Couple hugging one another.
altanaka / Shutterstock

The phrase "once a cheater, always a cheater" didn't come from nowhere. Michelle Mays, licensed professional counselor and author of The Betrayal Bind, notes that it's a protective belief.

"The safest way to ensure never feeling the pain of betrayal again is to decide the cheater is [not] redeemable and move on," says Mays. "However, over two decades of working with sexual betrayal, I have witnessed hundreds of cheating partners—some dealing with isolated infidelities and some dealing with long histories of sex addiction—change their patterns and become not just faithful partners but intimately connected partners."

Of course, Mays notes that moving forward with a cheating partner isn't always the right move. In many cases, it's best to cut ties.

If you learn a new partner has cheated in the past, proceed cautiously.

Sad girl and supporting friends trying to solve a problem. Two sad diverse women talking at home. Female friends supporting each other. Problems, friendship and care concept

If you learn a new partner has cheated, you needn't assume they'll repeat the behavior. Carolina Pataky, LMFT, relationship expert and founder of South Florida's Love Discovery Institute, says that while it's understandable to have concerns, it's important to remember that people can change.

"Approach the subject with empathy and understanding and give the person the opportunity to explain their actions and their commitment to changing their behavior in the future," Pataky says.

You'll also want to consider the context of their affair. "For example, how did the person respond to being caught, and how did they work to make amends?" Pataky notes. "How do they feel about their actions now, and what steps have they taken to ensure it won't happen again?" Communicate your concerns and discuss how you can move forward in a healthy and trusting way.

For more relationship advice delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Here's how to know a cheater has recovered.

couple having a conversation during coffee time while relaxing on a window sill.

There are a few ways to determine if your partner has learned from their past infidelities, Pataky says. The first is communication.

"The cheater should be willing to have open and honest conversations about their past infidelity, feelings, and commitment to changing their behavior," Pataky says. "They should also be willing to answer any questions or concerns their partner may have."

The next is taking responsibility. If your partner is able to apologize and accept the consequences of their behavior, that's a good sign.

Working with a professional is also a positive sign that your partner wants to move forward. "The cheater should be willing to seek help, whether through therapy, counseling, or self-help resources, to address the underlying issues that led to their infidelity," says Pataky.

By doing so, they can understand the root cause of their behavior. From there, they can recover more fully and be better able to maintain a trusting, loyal relationship.

Juliana LaBianca
Juliana is an experienced features editor and writer. Read more
Filed Under